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Gronk added flair to Pats’ robotic image

Jun. 22—Is Rob Gronkowski the greatest tight end of all-time?

In my humble opinion … abso-bleepin-lutely.

He was a classic, two-way tight-end, which means he was a big-time blocker, even on elite defensive ends, and even bigger in terms of production in the passing game.

But the topic is debatable, probably for another day.

What isn’t debatable was his influence on the New England Patriots, and really in Dynasty No. 2, from 2014 through 2018.

In a lot of ways he was right up there with his buddy, “Tommy” Brady.

And I’m not talking just about football, which included a record of 123-36 (.773) in games he dressed and played with the Patriots.

The Patriots, for most of the last two decades under Bill Belichick and Brady, were considered more akin to robots, at least to the outside world.

They were consistent. They did what they were told. They said very little. And, of course, they were disciplined.

Basically machine-like.

Ahhhh, but there is one holdout. One who was not like the rest. One who obeys most, but not all of the rules in the “Patriot Way” rule book.

“Gronk” was the Patriots’ only Mr. Personality nominee. He’s the one Patriot who wasn’t afraid to let it all hang out, be it on the field or, well, on top of the counter at your local bar.

Even his spiking of the football, after a touchdown, had a special and powerful “Gronk” flair to it.

“Oh, no, I’m just a normal guy,” said Gronkowski when pressed about his un-Patriot Way-like personality. “Sure, I like to have a little fun and I love to play football … But it’s no big deal.”

Gronkowski was modest. Or he was fibbing a bit. It was a big deal. In fact, he was the biggest deal in the NFL.

While a few defenses in Baltimore and New York (the Jets and Giants) figured ways to make Brady’s life miserable at times, no team figured out a surefire way to stop or even contain Gronkowski.

“He’s big, strong and fast,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh at a pre-AFC Championship press conference, of the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Gronkowski. “You can try putting two people on him, but oftentimes that doesn’t work. You just have to do your best.”

When he didn’t play, of wasn’t close to 100 percent, it wasn’t the same for the Pats, especially in January or February.

But it wasn’t just the spectacular catches and the way he threw bodies around with one arm while holding the ball in the other.

It was his antics, his smile and boyish behavior, which were a breath of the fresh air this franchise could use more of.

He wasn’t afraid to do a little post-touchdown dance on the Patriots sidelines, even under the baleful gaze of Belichick, who would just shake his head.

He wasn’t afraid to play bouncer and toss an opposing player into a camera truck after a play, then tell us “I threw him out of the club,” en route to a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. After all, the guy had been “yappin’ at me all game.”

When the Patriots played London, after one score, his pre-spike dance was mimicking the guards at Buckingham Palace by strutting like a soldier.

He wasn’t afraid of, well, taking fun to levels weren’t used to under the Belichick regime.

“I’ve never been around a guy that has more fun and enjoys himself more than Gronk does,” said Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich in 2015. “He is very funny. He does make you laugh sometimes.

“But don’t get the wrong message. Nobody cares more about doing his job correctly or winning than he does. He a very intelligent player who is on the same page as Tommy (Brady). That means a lot.”

But the real truth is Gronk was a winner, right there with Brady and Belichick.

Big game after big game that involved Brady almost always involved Gronk. Even in their last Super Bowl in New England, a 13-3 win over the Rams, the biggest play of the game was when Brady floated a pass over the defender to a streaking Gronk to the Rams 2-yard line, setting up the game’s only touchdown.

In their only Super Bowl together in Tampa, Gronk entered the big game with two receptions in three playoff games. He caught six balls for 67 yards and, more importantly, two TDs in the 31-9 trouncing of the Kansas Chiefs.

As for why now, when he still appears to have talented tread on his tires, hauling in four passes for 85 yards in the heart-breaking loss to the Rams in the NFC title game?

Simple.

The injuries and pounding at taken its toll.

He gave up his body for the good of the team and all you have to do is look at his elongated injury report to understand why (see accompanying graphic).

These weren’t nagging injuries:

Two arm fractures. Two punctured lungs. Two knee ligament tears. A herniated disc. A vertebrae fracture. Two back strains. Etc., etc.

And, mind you, these were the injuries that were reported.

Gronk is an all-time great, arguably the best that ever played the position.

But he was more than that in New England and really, Tampa Bay, too.

He was fun.

You can email Bill Burt at [email protected].

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